“In this 2014 book, he would define conservatism as—among other things—a sentiment and ‘one that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.'”
ollowing his death in January, Sir Roger Scruton was lauded by many commentators as one of the most important thinkers of our era. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called him “the greatest modern conservative,” while others mourned the empty space left behind by the great man’s passing. And this was deservedly so; Scruton’s many achievements were nothing short of remarkable. His life’s work was extensive and contained manifest variety, and his intellectual legacy will remain for years to come.
Yet six months later, we are forced to witness in horror the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of an American police officer. The riots and destructive movements that have followed—and which hijacked the outrage from the very start—have led many writers to wonder if we are now witnessing the downfall of Western Civilization. As such, it is perhaps worthwhile to revisit Scruton’s origins as a conservative thinker.
Known for his prolific writing, his long-lasting opposition to Communism, and for his graceful and frequent endorsements of high culture and its aesthetic potency, Scruton’s intellectual breakthrough came about in Paris as he watched the riots of May 1968 from the window of his student apartment. He would later recall in The New Criterion in 2003: “…it was when witnessing what this meant, in May 1968 in Paris, that I discovered my vocation.” In this 2003 essay entitled “Why I became a conservative,” Scruton described the riots as “a kind of adolescent insouciance, a throwing away of all customs, institutions, and achievements, for the sake of momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy.”
And upon returning to his home-country of the United Kingdom, Scruton began diving into the great traditional thinkers, reading Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, as well as various libertarian economists. From there, he would begin his journey into an academic climate that was already hostile to perspectives such as his.
Many years later, in one of the last of his many books, How to Be a Conservative, Scruton undertook the task of compiling decades of philosophical meditations into one comprehensive manual. In this 2014 book, he would define conservatism as—among other things—a sentiment and “one that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
As I re-read these words, I cannot help but think that perhaps it was a good thing that Sir Roger Scruton was spared the horror of witnessing the events of these past few weeks.
Then cancer came for Scruton. And, in his final days, he reflected on the aftermath of the previous year’s controversy (that saw his reputation unfairly damaged in the conservative movement), his sudden illness, and the magnificent journey that life had handed him. His final published words still reflected the unique style and aura that his readers loved him for. In The Spectator, he wrote of 2019, “During this year much was taken from me…But much more was given back…Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
As I re-read these words, I cannot help but think that perhaps it was a good thing that Sir Roger Scruton was spared the horror of witnessing the events of these past few weeks. The feeling of anger and resentment across the West, the destruction of property, the violence, the looting, the buildings ablaze, the hate-filled mobs, and the desecrated memorials might have been a spectacle too much to bear for the honorable man from Lincolnshire. This was the man, after all, who had spent so much of his life emphasizing the significance of beauty and its ability to transcend destruction.
But Scruton was alive when the “critical social justice” lie slowly invaded the rhetoric of American universities, spreading throughout the West like an unstoppable disease. He was as prominent as ever in the prelude to the events that are now unfolding. Today’s political correctness, which was disguised as a just and mighty undertaking on behalf of the downtrodden, was as tainted with hypocrisy as the May 68 riots. What he said of the riots, referring to them as “the self-scripted drama of the baby boomers’ vanity” could have been said much the same of “critical social justice.” They are both, in Scruton’s words, “Childish disobedience amplified into anarchy.”
For Scruton, what is currently unfolding must be the legacy of Soixante-Huitards, and now—by the looks of it— this was likely the end-goal of “postcolonial theory.” We now witness the opportunistic, ideological, and racial narrative of Black Lives Matter, the tyrannical nature of organizations such as Antifa, and the mind-boggling inconsistencies and unapologetic hypocrisy of some of their advocates. Much has been written already about the far-left’s role in the ongoing American riots, and Scruton would likely agree with much of it. However, many of the far-left’s practices are now so pervasive in the political sphere that sober-minded observers and, especially, modern conservatives risk overlooking one of the most crucial underlying issues: the lack of belonging apparent in our society. Scruton was as vocal on the necessity of a transcendent purpose in one’s life as he was in critiquing Marx and Foucault.
With the decline of religion and family formation, the lonely existences of so many in the West crave for spirituality. Unfortunately, for many, politics has offered itself as the antidote. Activism, after all, offers a sense of community, the feeling of purpose that comes with being in a mob, along with blind faith to “the cause.” For many conservatives, this activism screams of hedonic nihilism. And, in turn, it raises a question: Can spiritual yearning lead to nihilism? The question, indeed, might appear paradoxical. Yet, in light of widespread destruction and years of ideological fanaticism (with their attendant instances of quasi-religious displays of self-abasement and full-blown nihilistic rage), it is a question that cannot be ignored.
Conservatism is above all a commitment, a way of looking at life. It is, as Roger Scruton saw it, “a lasting vision of human society.”
All the while, chaos is emerging faster than expected, and it is constantly recruiting agents. It comes under different names, but, without a doubt, it has found its way into our societies. Now, it is pounding at the gates. In the meantime, as American cities burn and British historical sites and monuments—including one to Sir Winston Churchill—are targeted, slightly optimistic conservatives find comfort in the knowledge that rioting, historically, has made public opinion move their way. However, will that be enough? Sir Roger Scruton’s legacy, if anything, reminds us that philosophy is much more than an opinion. As the English writer Ben Sixsmith puts it, “If we look to faith simply for what it can do for us and how it can make us feel, the chances are we’ll be disappointed when we hit hard times.” Conservatism is, above all, a commitment, a way of looking at life. It is, as Roger Scruton saw it, “a lasting vision of human society.” What we hold dear cannot simply be preserved by a name cast upon a ballot at election time.
Unfortunately, that is precisely the message being echoed throughout the West—and on both sides of the political aisle. “Make sure you’re registered to vote in November, instead!,” cried one black woman two weeks ago in New York City, passionately addressing the crowd and visibly enraged by the destruction left in the wake of the rioters’ gleeful nihilism. At the same time, on the other side of the political spectrum, conservatives suggest basically the same: that this all can be resolved by supporting Republican candidates come November.
Sadly, we may truly be witnessing the end of Western Civilization. But if that is the case, the key to its survival lies not only within our capacity to make the right decision. It lies not merely within our rights and liberties—and certainly not in our almost indistinguishable political candidates. Rather, it rests in our willingness to communicate with one another, to think, learn, and believe. That is what it is to step away from the shuttered windows concealing the violence in the street with a renowned sense of gratitude for our heritage and a responsibility towards our culture. This was, after all, what a young, bright, British student did in the French summer of ’68, and he continued to do this until the very day he took his final breath.
Mark Granza is a freelance writer in Italy.